Sunday, December 29, 2013

Organizational Chaos at Sears: Prelude to profits, or formula for failure?

Sears Holdings, the storied department store that includes both the Kmart and Sears Roebuck chains, lost $3.1 billion in 2011, $930 million in 2012 and $1 billion in the first nine months of 2013. Its stock has lost half its value over the last five years, even though it spent $6 billion on share buybacks between 2005 and 2011. Recently, the magazine, Business week/Bloomberg, reported on the state of organizational chaos at the company. ( Its CEO Eddie Lampert, the very successful hedge fund investor who owns a $1.7 billion dollar stake in the company, divided the store into thirty business units in such areas as apparel, consumer electronics, footwear and finance. Under this scheme, “Each business unit had its own president, chief marketing officer, board of directors, and, most important, its own profit-and-loss statement…  Interviews with more than forty former executives, many of whom sat at the highest levels of the company, paint a picture of a business that’s ravaged by infighting as its divisions battle over fewer resources. (Many declined to go on the record for a variety of reasons, including fear of angering Lampert.) Shaunak Dave, a former executive who left in 2012 and is now at the sports marketing agency, Revolution, says the model created a ‘warring tribes’ culture. ‘If you were in a different business unit, we were in two competing companies,’ he says. ‘Cooperation and collaboration aren’t there.’”

The reporter goes on to note, “The most cumbersome aspect of the new structure, former employees say, was Lampert’s edict that each unit create its own board of directors. Because there were so many departments, some presidents sat on as many as five or six boards, which met once a month. Top executives were constantly mired in meetings. According to several former executives, the apparel division cut back on labor to save money, knowing that floor salesmen in other departments would inevitably pick up the slack. Turf wars sprang up over store displays. No one was willing to make sacrifices in pricing to boost store traffic.”

One question is whether or not this organizational structure serves purposeful ends, for example to underline and strengthen managerial accountability for results, or simply expresses the CEO’s irrational response to stresses and difficulties, a way to punish executives for their failure to perform. Lampert owns Sears holdings shares through his hedge fund, ESL. Some journalists and analysts suggest that as a hedge fund investor, he is less interested in the company’s performance and more in extracting cash from it by selling off its assets. For example, one investment house estimates that the Store’s top 350 locations, as standalone properties, were together worth $7.3 billion, about $600 million more than its total capitalization on the stock market. This may be one reason why Sears spends significantly less on upgrading its stores than do other retailers. In 2012, for instance, Sears Holdings spent $1.46 per square foot, on average, on its stores. Five of its peers — J.C. Penney, Target, Lowe’s, Walmart and Home Depot — spent an average of $9.45 a square foot. As a result, “sales at stores open at least one year, a key measure of retail performance, have declined for six straight years.” In this sense, perhaps he divided the business into 30 separate units to assess which assets he should retain and which he should sell off. He is an “asset stripper.”
I am inclined however to reject this interpretation. As one analyst notes his personal stake in the company increased by 41% in 2013, adding that, “There is no apparent news, however, to explain this rapid run-up.” ( Moreover, in 2009, the year he implemented the organization design, he reduced the company’s debt by $2 billion.

Classic “asset strippers” work differently. They typically take on lots of debt to buy a company and then use the loan’s proceeds to reward themselves, while preparing to sell off pieces of the company as quickly as possible to pay off the debt. While Lampert buys distressed properties --he bought the department store, Kmart, out of bankruptcy and later merged it with Sears -- he holds on to his shares for a long time, focusing his investments and attention on a few sectors. As one journalist notes, in contrast to many other hedge funds he holds, “seven or eight investments at a time, investments he knows intimately, after intensive research.” In addition, as another journalist notes, Lampert has invested a great deal of money in the company’s information technology, online site, and membership program. As one journalist writes, “Gary Balter, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse, is negative on Sears Holdings’ stock but is impressed with the online presence Mr. Lampert has created. ‘The irony of Eddie is he’s one of the retailers who did see the Internet coming,’ Mr. Balter said. ‘I have so many retailers who were so blind to the impact. Eddie saw it and he made significant investments.’” In his own defense, Lampert explains the comparatively low level of investment in the company’s stores, by arguing reasonably, “There is more money we could be investing in our stores, but when we did invest in our stores, we didn’t see a return. If I can’t invest in 100 stores and do well, doing that across 1,000 stores doesn’t make sense.”

Moreover Lampert argues, not unreasonably, that a decentralized structure with many business units increases organizational adaptation. As he noted in a 2009 letter to shareholders, “During the past year we underwent a major organizational transformation to help us adapt to the accelerated pace of change across all of our businesses. This change goes far beyond economic conditions. New technology and business models have forced many mature industries and businesses to reassess their ability to compete. We put in place boards and leadership teams and developed internal financial reports for each of the business units. For those who don’t agree with the idea of a portfolio approach as the underpinning of strategy, I respectfully disagree. It is easier in theory to manage to a single scenario and a single plan. It is much easier to communicate based on a single scenario and a single plan. But the world is complex and it doesn’t always cooperate.”

Case closed? Is the design is a rational response to current conditions? I am not sure. There is something worrisome about the emotional impacts of his organizational structure and one wonders how connected he is to the turmoil and anguish he has created. Moreover, what if the structure itself, introduced four years ago is partly responsible for the company’s recent poor performance? Perhaps an assessment of his character and psychology can shed some additional light here.

It is striking in this regard that Lampert seems quite detached from his subordinates. He rarely visits the firm’s official headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and conducts most of his meetings virtually from his hedge fund's office, at one time in Connecticut, and now in Miami. As the Business Week journalist writes, “Lampert spends little face to face time with his executives. He regularly holds court in his spartan conference room, diagramming on a big whiteboard for Sears executives who tune in remotely. The executive in the hot seat will begin clicking through a PowerPoint presentation meant to impress. Often he’ll boast an overly ambitious target—“We can definitely grow 20 percent this year!”—without so much as a glance from Lampert whose preference is to peck out e-mails or scroll through a spreadsheet during the talks. Not until the executive makes a mistake does the Sears chief look up, unleashing a torrent of questions that can go on for hours.” This description suggests that he disrespects his subordinates and may in fact be competitive with them.

He also enacted this detached style in the way he participated in the company’s social network. The journalist writes, “He ordered the IT department to build a proprietary social network, called Pebble, which he joined anonymously under the pseudonym, “Eli Wexler.” ..Lampert’s intention, former colleagues say, was noble: He wanted to engage with employees and find out what was happening across the company. It quickly became clear that Eli Wexler was a little too engaged on Pebble. He left critical comments on other people’s posts, according to more than 20 former employees; he even got into arguments with store associates. Word got around that Wexler was Lampert. Bosses started tracking how often employees were “Pebbling.” One former business head says her group organized Pebble conversations about miscellaneous topics just to appear they were active users. Another group held “Pebblejam” sessions to create the illusion they were using the network.” In other words, he engaged his subordinates manipulatively, by participating anonymously in the network, and they in turn manipulated him.

It is also interesting in this regard that he is passionate follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy and gives new employees audio recordings of her famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. Her philosophy, “Objectivism,” rejects emotionalism and believes that feelings per se are not sources of knowledge or meaning. Instead, reason is supreme. As the hero-inventor of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt says in a radio address, “Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his work in nothing but rational actions." Rand also proposed that the commercial transaction “is in fact, a good representation of an ideal human interaction. It embodies the values of productivity, justice and integrity. Trade of values (of any sort) is the most important and just principle of all human relationships and a commercial transaction exemplifies trade better than anything else.” This is of course one reason why Rand rejected collectivism as a principle of social organization.

It is reasonable to ask if Lampert’s organization design has roots in this philosophy. The design too rejects the idea of the organization as a collective whole. Indeed, in providing a rationale for the company’s organization design, a Sears spokesperson, “went as far as to say that competition and advocacy were sorely lacking before and are lacking in socialistic economies.” The reference to “socialism,” at a time when it exists nowhere but in Cuba, suggests that Lampert’s organizational choice was not motivated simply by the requirements of the situation but by his loyalty to a particular worldview.

I am drawn as well to another feature of Lampert’s biography; the fact that he lost his father when he was 14. As several journalists have noted, Lampert’s close friends believe that his drive and ambition are linked to this loss. As his mother recounts, “At his wedding in 2001, held outdoors on his Greenwich estate, he looked up into the sky and made a toast, “How am I doing, Dad?”

The loss of a parent at such an age is without a doubt traumatic. His father was involved with Lampert and his sister, coaching Little League baseball and teaching them the card game, “Bridge.” He died suddenly, and though a lawyer, left the family with little money. Lampert’s mother went to work as a sales clerk and Lampert worked after school in a warehouse. In this sense losing a parent signals a premature end to childhood. Some teenagers may refuse adulthood by acting out, while others may respond adaptively to the loss by internalizing reality as harsh and unforgiving. Perhaps his detachment, as well as his failure to understand the emotional costs of the organization he created, reflects his belief that harshness is an inevitable feature of sociability.

It is striking in this regard, that he has successfully sought out high-powered mentors, father figures so to speak, such as Robert Rubin, the head of Goldman Sachs, James Tobin, the Nobel economist, and Richard Rainwater the successful investor. Yet he did not accept their support and succor for very long. He left Goldman Sachs sufficiently early in his tenure for Rubin to worry that he was hurting his career prospects. He left Rainwater early, after only a year and a half, in disagreement over his role. “Lampert pushed to get involved in deals, but Rainwater wanted him to stay focused on buying and selling stocks. ‘It wasn't that I thought I'd do deals,’ says Lampert, who was 27 when he set out on his own... ‘But I was hell-bent on the principle that I should have the flexibility to do deals.’ He adds, ‘The irony is that I didn't do a deal until 15, 16, 17 years later.’ In other words, he left a mentor on matters of principle rather than on the basis of a relationship. This reflects a conception of sociability based on abstractions rather than on experience.

Warren Buffet was his most important teacher, but was a father figure in absentia. He started reading and re-reading Buffett’s writings while working at Goldman after college. “He would analyze Buffett’s investments, he says, by ‘reverse engineering’ deals, such as his purchase of the insurance company Geico. Lampert went back and read Geico’s annual reports in the couple of years preceding Buffett’s initial investment in the 1970s. ‘Putting myself in his shoes at that time, could I understand why he made the investments? That was part of my learning process.’” He met Buffet for only 90 minutes in 1989 on a trip he took to Omaha.

All this suggests that while he has sought out and found father figures he nonetheless keeps them at some emotional distance. This is a reasonable response to the loss of an actual father. Finding father figures meets a need, keeping them at a distance helps restrain the grief he may feel upon re-enacting the father-son relationship. This stance could make it difficult for him to understand the paternal functions of the “boss” role, that is the leader or authority figure who demands a certain level of performance but also provides subordinates with a sense of security and support. This may be why he is not in touch with the emotional costs his design imposes on his subordinates. After all, if the Business Week journalist is to be believed, they feel “ravaged” by the competitiveness he’s induced.
Colleagues describe Lampert as an information geek. “His chief information officer Karen Austin says Lampert is the company's number one user of a computer-based tool to analyze sales, margins, and inventories by store, by region, and by merchandise group. A geek at heart, he spends hours at his Connecticut office drilling down into the data, zeroing in on whatever isn't making money.” A person who is detached emotionally, can make good use of his resistance to sociability by being a geek. His limitation can become a source of strength. Indeed, this is the hallmark of all neurotics --and I include myself in this group -- and what we mean by the notion of “character.”  
Yet at the same time, there is little doubt that we are entering a world in which geeks have power. Lampert’s organization design produces a rich array of data that helps him treat his organization as a collection of assets, each of which must earn a requisite rate of return. Can we say for certain that this conception of an organization results in dysfunction? After all, this conception shares features with other ideas in good currency, for example; the resistance to bureaucracy, the belief that decentralization is good, or that people perform best when they are given discretion but are also held accountable.
Indeed, the good marketing professional once depended on his imaginative grasp of his customers, an ability to empathize with them. But in the world of “big data” marketing professionals rely increasingly on quantitative evidence. This is after, all how Netflix, the movie-streaming company, identifies what movies we will like, how Amazon identifies what books we want to read, how website designers identify what features of a site lead to “click-throughs,” and when, as a result of our online searches, we are about to buy an automobile or a house, or have a baby. It may be that Lampert’s character is fit for the time and that his organization design while stressful may yet help him identify which parts of the organization are productive and promise future returns. The idea of an organization as a whole with a skin that creates integrity and containment may be outmoded. After all, isn’t this what we mean when we describe the world as a set of networks, and isn’t a marketplace one giant network of exchange?
I am of several minds here. We cannot know right now whether or not Lampert’s organization design is the root of the company’s poor performance, or is the basis for its future success. We can be reasonably certain that Lampert has a detached style of relating, and that his resulting “geekiness” is consonant with many of the challenges and tasks facing executives today. We can be reasonably certain that like all of us neurotics, he makes the most of his limitations. We can be reasonably certain that we are entering a period that favors entrepreneurship and that a social world of networks makes organizations less whole and less containing. We cannot know how harsh such a social world should or must be, and what countervailing tendencies may create feelings of solidarity and friendship. I wonder what my readers think.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The early failure of and the psychology of a crusade

The early failure of, the federal government’s marketplace exchange for buying health insurance, raises questions about how and why the Obama administration bungled such an important undertaking. Some writers suggest that the administration’s leaders did not appreciate the challenges of designing and implementing a large-scale computer system that integrated data from different government agencies. Focused primarily on politics, and skilled in creating legislation, these leaders lacked the requisite technical imagination and know-how to integrate the efforts of several contractors and government agencies in an orderly process of software development and testing. As David Cutler, Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign noted, “They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business. It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills.”

Instead, as the argument goes, the White House’s model for achieving what were technical objectives was based inappropriately on the dynamics of a political campaign, where for example, you face enemies, you focus on appearances and optics, and you value, when necessary, stealth and secrecy. As two Washington Post journalists wrote, the White House subsumed “technical needs” to “political fear.” ( And as another writes, the administration managed “a software project as if it were a top-secret campaign strategy rather than a mission-critical component of the most ambitious federal entitlement expansion in almost 50 years.”

This frame of reference -- envisioning the work as political rather than technical -- explains why the 200 member team, enjoined to build the website, worked in relative secrecy within the Department of Health and Human Services “insulated from the efforts of House Republicans, who were looking for ways to undermine the law.” It also explains why the administration took up the role of “general contractor” rather than rely on a company with expertise in building large-scale computer systems. Congressional Republicans could readily subpoena contractors to testify about the difficulties the administration team faced.  It also explains why the White House did not permit the early release of a high level design for the exchanges that would have helped government contractors do their work. The White House worried that Republicans would mock the design’s seeming complexity, just as they had ridiculed the diagram Hillary Clinton’s team had used when describing its plan for overhauling health care some twenty years ago. It also explains why the team did not tell contractors how many states they expected would create their own complementary websites- a critical specification for the federal website design. The administration leaders worried, that were the number too low, it would signal that the federal government was taking over health care, just as the Republicans had predicted. 

Ironically, White House officials and administrative leaders took these decisions even though, as another journalist writes, “hours after the bill had been enacted, the president had stood on the Truman Balcony for a champagne toast with his weary staff and put them on notice: They needed to get started on carrying out the law the very next morning.” At subsequent meetings for monitoring the progress of enacting the law, “no matter which aspects of the sprawling law had been that day’s focus,” an administration official said, “Obama invariably ended the meeting by saying, ‘All of that is well and good, but if the website doesn’t work, nothing else matters.’” Yet as another insider, Donald Berwick noted, “The exchange ‘was in the future,’ explaining that the Web site was, during his tenure, a matter of ‘conceptualization,’ along with ‘the many other regulations we were batting out.’” The question is why did the administration make this fate-making choice of treating their effort as a political campaign. 

One reasonable answer is that the administration framed its efforts as a political campaign because it faced an ongoing political war with the Republicans over the law’s implementation. In this way of thinking, the Republicans who hated Obamacare were sabotaging the administration’s efforts. For example, all the Republican governors refused to build state-level web sites, which once put into place, would have reduced the technical complexity of building a federal web site. In addition, many Republican governors refused to expand Medicaid, as allowed under the law, which would have reduced the number of people using the federal exchange to purchase insurance. Similarly, “Although the statute provided plenty of money to help states build their own insurance exchanges, it included no money for the development of a federal exchange — and Republicans would block any funding attempts.”

Similarly, as one journalist notes, “In August, the Obama administration announced that it had awarded contracts to 105 ‘navigators’ to help guide people through their new predicaments and options. There were local health-care providers, community groups, Planned Parenthood outposts, and even business groups. In at least 17 states where Republicans are in charge, a variety of roadblocks have been thrown in front of these folks. In Indiana, they were required to pay fees of $175. In Florida, the health department ruled that local public-health offices can’t have navigators on their premises… Tennessee issued ‘emergency rules’ requiring their employees to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks. America, 2013: No background checks to buy assault weapons. But you damn well better not try to enroll someone in health care.” In short, the White House was at war and as another journalist writes, “sabotage works.” 

But this explanation is insufficient because many people involved in the administration’s effort, or who were close to the White House, worried that the administration’s own efforts, resources and skills were insufficient to the task at hand. As the two Washington Post journalists write, “In May 2010, two months after the Affordable Care Act squeaked through Congress, President Obama’s top economic aides were getting worried. Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, and Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget, had just received a pointed four-page memo from David Cutler, the trusted outside health adviser from Harvard. It warned that no one in the administration was ‘up to the task’ of overseeing the construction of an insurance exchange and other intricacies of translating the 2,000-page statute into reality. After the (2012) election, Cutler, renewed his warnings that the White House had not put the right people in charge. “I said, ‘You have another chance to get a team in place,’” he recalled.

Similarly, in March, “Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the lead Obamacare agency, said at an insurance-industry meeting that he was "pretty nervous" about the exchanges being ready by Oct. 1, adding, "let's just make sure it's not a third-world experience." In addition, as another journalist writes, “by early this year, people inside and outside the bureaucracy were raising red flags. ‘We foresee a train wreck,’ an insurance executive working on information technology said in a February interview. ‘We don’t have the I.T. specifications. The level of angst in health plans is growing by leaps and bounds. The political people in the administration do not understand how far behind they are.’” 

One question is why the White House and top administration officials did not pay sufficient attention to these warnings and anxieities. Let me suggest the following hypothesis. The notion that the administration was waging a political campaign is not quite right, or rather not sufficient. Rather, it was waging a crusade. The psychology of a crusade can stimulate unrealistic and wishful thinking.

Consider the following. In remarks on the Sunday after the legislation passed, with every House Republican voting no, Obama said that the vote "proved that we are still capable of doing big things. We proved that this government -- a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people." The phrase, “of the people, and by the people,” evokes of course Abraham Lincoln’s magisterial speech at Gettysburg during the Civil War. Moreover, it is a phrase embedded deeply in the consciousness of Americans, evoking as it does the great moral struggle against slavery. Indeed, one pro-Obama journalist invoked the Civil War in characterizing Republican opposition to the Affordable Health Care act. He writes, “To find obstinacy like this, you have to go back, yes, to the pre-Civil War era. The tariff of 1828, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to the Civil War in ‘Bloody Kansas’ and ultimately to the Civil War itself.” In this sense passing the Affordable Health Care Act was like winning the war against slavery.

This sense of a crusade was buttressed I suggest by Senator Ted Kennedy’s death, eight months after Obama first took office. He was the last of the great “liberal lions” whose consciousness was shaped by the idea of the welfare state that first took shape under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal.” He had been a passionate advocate for public health care insurance throughout his political career. But he was too sick with cancer to participate in the early congressional debates over health care legislation. Ironically, his death led to the election of a Republican senator, Scott Brown from Massachusetts, who campaigned against Obamas’ health care act. 

Perhaps many of my readers can recall, that upon the passage of the law, Democratic Party supporters expressed a sense of poignancy as well as vindication. It was as if Obama had given the dead Ted Kennedy a parting gift, while the law proved that Kennedy had not died in vein. In this sense, Obama, in evoking Lincoln, was also positioning himself in the line of presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson-- who had successfully advanced the welfare state in the face of Republicans who identified the welfare state with socialism. After all, Ronald Reagan had warned conservatives in 1961 that if Medicare, the law that now helps pay for medical services for old people, were passed into law, “One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

If this line of thinking is useful it suggests that we examine the psychology of a crusade. I suggest that it has the following three features. First, the crusade is propelled by a moral imagination. What matters most is not whether a particular assessment or assumption is true or false, but rather whether it is good or bad. Under these conditions, considerations of technique and the assessment of cause and effect take a back seat. Moreover, in such a setting, expressions of doubt or misgiving can themselves be labeled as immoral or disloyal. Second, it is a common and even right that a crusade should unfold in the face of trenchant opposition. Indeed the opposition underlines the moral superiority of the crusaders. Third, the crusade minimizes the emotional meaning of setbacks. Failures reinforce the idea that the crusade is necessary, since the strength of opposition and the impact of obstacles are signs of the crusade’s moral standing.

This frame of reference helps explain how and why the administration undermined its own efforts. It saw the Republicans as morally flawed, in this way discounting its dependence on the Republicans to implement the legislation. In fact, the Affordable Health Care Act was the only major piece of legislation to pass in the face of total opposition from the Republicans in the past 80 years. Medicare, the Voting Rights act, Social Security, and the Civil Rights act all passed with some Republican support. Any law as complex as these laws were, and the Affordable Care Act was certainly complex, depends on some bipartisan support for its implementation. 

For example, had some number of Republicans voted for the law, the Democrats could have secured the passage of supporting legislation to actually fund the implementation of the federal website. Instead, Republicans made it clear that they would such block funding. As the Washington Post journalists point out, this had very serious consequences. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary, “could not scrounge together enough money to keep a group of people developing the exchanges working directly under her.” Instead, the technical people were seconded to one agency, the policy people to another.  They go on write, Bureaucratic as this move may sound, it was fateful, according to current and former administration officials. It meant that the work of designing the federal health exchange — and of helping states that wanted to build their own — became fragmented. Technical staffs, for instance, were separated from those assigned to write the necessary policies and regulations… There wasn’t a person who said, ‘My job is the seamless implementation of the Affordable Care Act.’” In other words, because the administration was leading a crusade it failed to account for the impact that opposition would have on its practical ability to implement the legislation. 

This frame of reference also helps explain why the White House ignored David Cutler’s prescient warnings, the first written while the Democrats still controlled both houses. To respond to his memo the administration had to confront the difficult technical issues they faced. But a technical imagination stands at right angles to a moral one. It privileges the means over the ends, usefulness over meaning and being effective over being right. It sees the objective links between cause and effect as dispositive and failure as natural. This is why software-system implementers rely so heavily on stress testing their designs. This distinction helps explain Obama’s serious misjudgment in appointing Nancy-Ann De-Parle the director of the White House Office of Health Reform and a policy specialist, to be in charge of the law’s arduous implementation. Since the day the bill became law, the president believed that, “if you were to design a person in the lab to implement health care, it would be Nancy-Ann.” Ironically De-Parle recognized her own limitations and tried but failed to recruit to the White House “one of the nation’s top experts, Jon Kingsdale, who had overseen the building of a similar insurance exchange in Massachusetts.”

In addition, this concept of a crusade, where loyalty is favored over critical thinking, can help explain why people involved in the administration’s efforts were reluctant to express their anxieties and doubts. As the Washington Post journalists write, “On Sept. 5, White House officials visited CMS for a final demonstration of Some staff members worried that it would fail right in front of the president’s aides. A few secretly rooted for it to fail so that perhaps the White House would wait to open the exchange until it was ready.” In other words, they withheld their doubts, secretly rooting for failure as they only way in which their doubts could then be justified. 

Finally, if you lead a crusade, you may paradoxically underestimate your opposition because you believe that your effort’s moral meaning should help you ultimately overcome all obstacles. This conception helps explain why in the face of implacable Republican hatred for the law, the White House still imagined or hoped that after the 2012 election Republication governors would decide to collaborate with the administration by implementing state-level exchanges. This was one reason why the administration risked releasing the exchange’s specifications to the contractors who were to build it, without specifying how many states would or would not create their own exchanges. As the Washington Post journalists write, “After the contract was awarded to CGI Federal, the administration kept giving states more and more time to decide whether to build their own exchanges. White House officials hoped that more would become willing after the 2012 election. So the technical work was held up. ‘The dynamic was you’d have [CMS’s leaders] going to the White House saying, ‘We’ve got to get this process going,’ one former official recalled. ‘There would be pushback from the White House.’”

It seems strange that, experiencing Republican hatred for the law, and feeling that they were working in a war zone, the White House would risk assuming that their Republican opposition would weaken significantly. One hypothesis is that the White House most feared the voting public rather than the Republicans.  In this sense, they could interpret Obama’s election potential victory as a signal that voters would now support the health care law and put pressure on their Republican representatives. In this context, it is striking that from 2010 to 2012 public approval for the Affordable Health Care Act never rose above 45%. 

This hypothesis  helps explain Obama’s personal failing of promising Americans that they could keep their current health policies after the law was passed. In fact millions had their plans cancelled because their policies did not meet the standards set by the new law. Speaking after many plans were cancelled, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters, “What the president said and what everybody said all along is that there are going to be changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act to create minimum standards of coverage, minimum services that every insurance plan has to provide. So it's true that there are existing healthcare plans on the individual market that don't meet those minimum standards and therefore do not qualify for the Affordable Care Act.” 

This response appears evasive and suggests that Obama’s original promise was itself an act of evasion, the hope being that people would welcome the opportunity to buy better policies once they qualified for subsidies. In this way of thinking, his promise, “You can keep your policy,” was an evasive version of the statement, “You will get a better policy, when you lose your old one.” We give evasive answers when we are afraid that the truth will offend someone on whom we depend. This fear also explains why the administration decided that consumers shopping for a policy had to first enroll to determine if they were entitled to a subsidy and if so how much. As many commentators noted this meant that the website “engine” had to successfully integrate databases from different agencies and organizations, for example, the Internal Revenue Service, the state Medicaid agency and an insurance company. As one blogger writes, “The real problems are with the back-end of the software. When you try to get a quote for health insurance, the system has to connect to computers at the IRS, the VA, Medicaid/CHIP, various state agencies, Treasury, and HHS. They also have to connect to all the health plan carriers to get pre-subsidy pricing. All of these queries receive data that is then fed into the online calculator to give you a price. If any of these queries fails, the whole transaction fails.”

As a result, when users tried to enroll, they burdened the computer system’s ability to query and integrate all of these back-end databases. That is one reason why the website crashed frequently. Yet the website could have provided useful information, and an initial level of service, if consumers could have shopped for plans without first enrolling. But the administration feared that upon seeing the prices for these plans, without first knowing what subsidy they would be entitled to, users would be angry and quit the website. 

If I am right, that the administration saw its efforts as part of an historical crusade to expand the welfare state, there is a certain irony in their achievement. The best exemplar of the welfare state would have been a law that enabled consumers to get insurance directly from the Federal government, much as senior citizens do today when they enroll in Medicare. But the Obama administration ruled out what was called “the public option” as simply being too radical and therefore unacceptable to Republicans and their supporters. Instead, taking a brief from earlier work by conservative policy analysts, they embraced a marketplace exchange, on the unrealized hope that Republicans would support a social policy that relied on market mechanisms. This is one more sign that they failed to anticipate or understand Republican hatred of the law. The result is a jerry-rigged marketplace mechanism for providing insurance, which as we have seen, has proven difficult to set up and implement. Had the administration recognized the meaning of their compromise, they might have realized that their crusade had been compromised as well, and that they were best served by looking upon their efforts pragmatically. 

Such a pragmatic perspective might have reinforced a reality orientation, helping the White House and administration leaders focus their attention on the technical challenges of building the front-end website and its back-end engine.  In this sense, I part company with the Washington Post journalists, who wrote that the website’s failure signals that the administration had subsumed "technical requirements to political fear." The larger failing was to see the passage of the law through the lens of grandiosity. It was this grandiosity that led them to imagine that the opposition would melt away, that they could subvert the public’s anxieties and animosities through evasion and that technical problems could be solved without focused expertise.  

One remaining question, stimulated by the comments of my colleague Jim Krantz, is what is the root of the grandiosity?  The "psychodynamics of organizations" as a school of thought suggests that  organizations erect "social defenses" to stave off or suppress the anxiety stimulated by the work organization members are called upon to do. Perhaps administration officials felt anxious because they in fact feared that the citizen/voter would hate Obamacare, much as they had hated the earlier appearance of "managed care" in the 1990s.  In this context the grandiosity could be seen as a protective myth, a way of believing in the law's inevitability and its essential  goodness, even if many citizens hated it. But just as an individual's psychological defense masks a truth, and may lead to self-inflicted wounds, for example through "acting out," the White House acted out, thereby undermining its own efforts. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Obama's decision making process and Syria's use of chemical weapons.

President Obama has had difficulty in developing and sustaining a consistent course of action in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. As the New York Times reported last month, “Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly. Instead of displaying decisive leadership, Mr. Obama, to these critics, has appeared reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.” 

Three moments support this perspective. Alarmed by intelligence reports in August  of 2012, suggesting that the “besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons,” Obama announced at a news conference that month that should Syria move or use large quantities of chemical weapons, they would be crossing a “red line” that would “change my calculus.” Yet as journalists reported, cabinet and staff members who participated in the discussion of these new and alarming reports, could not recall any discussion whatsoever about announcing a red line. It seemed that on so important a matter, Obama was speaking extemporaneously, and as a result boxed himself into a course of action he had not fully vetted or even clarified.  Moreover, as a writer for the London Review of Books notes, “a clearer invitation could scarcely be imagined by anyone who had an interest in drawing the US into the war.”

Second, when in late August of 2013, the Syrian government in fact killed over a thousand people by launching chemically tipped rockets into the Damascus suburbs, the Obama administration appeared divided. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that, “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.” This seeming call to arms was reinforced when Chuck Hegel, the Secretary of Defense, said a few days later, “We are ready to go,” as the Navy “beefed up its presence in the Persian Gulf region, increasing the number of aircraft carriers from one to two.” Indeed, after lengthy deliberations Obama had in fact decided to launch a missile strike. Yet, despite his penchant for following a deliberate decision-making process, Obama, walking for an hour on the grounds of the White House with his chief of staff, changed his mind about striking Syria with missiles. He decided instead to submit the decision to launch missiles to Congress, without consulting with Hegel or Kerry. As one journalist writes, “When President Obama strode into the Rose Garden after a week of increasing tension over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, many assumed it was to announce that the attack that had been broadly hinted at by his own aides had begun. Instead, he turned the decision over to Congress.”

Third, with congressional opposition to a missile strike growing, Obama used a September 10 speech, planned as a venue for making the case for a missile strike, to announce that he would give the Russians and Syrians time to come up with a plan for the UN to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks. Russia, it appears, was emboldened to propose such a plan, after John Kerry in a news conference, made the offhand comment that Assad could avoid war, if he turned over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, adding quickly, that Assad "isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."  In others words, Obama supported a plan that his Secretary of State had said was unworkable.

One way of interpreting these decision-making slips is to argue that they represent Obama’s customary fecklessness and unreliability. Certainly some of his long-standing critics believe this to be true. Another way is to emphasize Obama’s open mindedness, his ability to tolerate uncertainty and to respond to changing events with agility. Certainly, some of his long-standing supporters believe this.

I propose a different tack. I'll assume that Obama is customarily a disciplined decision maker, in the specific sense that he relies on an extended process of consultation with his staff and cabinet members, as well as on debates among them, before making a decision. However, this mode of decision-making creates delays, and may result in many false starts and premature conclusions. Yet, as long as these twists and turns take place in private, they actually help Obama grow comfortable with a particular decision. As one analyst writes, “President Obama is almost defiantly deliberative, methodical and measured, even when critics accuse him of dithering. When describing his executive style, he goes into Spock mode, saying, 'You've got to make decisions based on information and not emotions.'

His decision in 2009 to increase troop levels in Afghanistan had this character. As the New York Times reports, “The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar on Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

In other words, I will assume that Obama is most satisfied when he avoids impulsive decisions even when this process creates delays, false starts and frustration. This assumption has the merit of suggesting that his opponents and supporters are both expressing partial truths. To his opponents, he meanders through his decision making process giving the appearance of undisciplined thinking, to his supporters his path to a decision, however indirect, depends on a rational consideration of all alternatives. If this is true, how do we account for what appears to be his impulsive decision making in the Syria case? In this case he appears to have made decisions too quickly and to have acted out, rather than thought through, his different options.

I am drawn here to the distinction between ambiguity and uncertainty. Uncertainty describes our lack of knowledge about the facts, or our inability to predict the future accurately. Ambiguity describes our inability to ascribe meaning to facts we may already know with certainty. Thus for example when Obama made the decision to kill Osama Bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan he faced some imponderables. Was Bin laden actually there? Would the Pakistanis detect a Navy Seal intrusion and send troops to confront them? Would the Seals kill someone that they mistook for Bin Laden? But while these uncertainties were fodder for the decision making process, Obama had no doubt as to the meaning of this undertaking namely; to weaken Al-Qaida and to revenge the death of the thousands killed in 9/11. This is why he made finding Bin Laden such a priority.

Meaning in this sense is linked to the story we tell ourselves about our experience, to a narrative that links different facts together into a comprehensible composite.  One hypothesis is that Obama stumbled in responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, because he lacked a story he believed in. Was the Syrian crisis the story of an enemy threatening us or our allies, a story of an evil government acting immorally, a story of a proxy war between powerful states, a story of the Arab spring in which democratic forces confronted authoritarian ones, or finally a story of a religious war between two Muslim sects. Each potential story reinforced the viability of different strategies, for example to act as a proxy in a proxy war, to stay out of a religious war, or to support democratic movements. Obama in a candid moment acknowledged that he wished he did not have puzzle his way through this dilemma. “I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas.” The New York Times, notes that " current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his Blackberry or slouching and chewing gum." In other words, Obama stumbled on the ambiguity of the situation he faced and had an impulse to withdraw from the difficulty. 

This hypothesis, while admittedly speculative, has the merit of shedding some light on Obama’s decision to impose a “red line” in the first instance. Psychologists describe a thinking process called, “reaction formation.” This happens when for example, a person who feels hostility toward a friend, masks it from himself through a stance of being overly solicitous. We say that the person finds his hostile feelings to be unacceptable to himself, and so conceals them, without consciously intending to do so, by showing exaggerated feelings of kindness. This leads to situations in which, as the saying goes, a person “kills with kindness.” (It is also the meaning of Shakespeare’s famous phrase in Hamlet, “the lady doth protest too much.”)

One hypothesis is that facing the pressure that ambiguity created, Obama tried to reject that pressure by projecting outward a stance of certitude, by in fact drawing a red line. It was as if he were saying, “I will respond to ambiguity in the domain I can’t control, by eliminating ambiguity in the domain I can.” This, despite the fact that from a strategic point of view a nation state often gains leverage by projecting ambiguity. This is why the Israelis for the longest time did not acknowledge that they had built an atomic bomb, why the United States has no clear red line for triggering the defense of Taiwan from attacks by China, and why Saddam Hussein suggested, without ever explicitly saying so, that he had weapons of mass destruction. (This bluff of course was his undoing, as bluffs sometimes are, but that does not mean bluffing is never a path to victory. After all, it helped him project power in the Arab world.)

To say that Obama rejected the psychological pressure that ambiguity imposed on him personally, by projecting it outward, is to say that he allowed his psychological vulnerability, in the moment, to shape his fate making decision. This is the opposite of disciplined decision making. Is this too harsh a claim? Perhaps, but one hypothesis is that his process of personalizing a decision is one occupational hazard of the way he makes decision in the first instance.

Return to the description of his decision-making about Afghanistan. “It was a virtual seminar on Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examination.” Obama does not rely on what one scholar calls “brokers” to assemble knowledge and then present it to Obama. “The most striking characteristic of Obama’s decision-making style was his personal involvement in the details of policy. Rejecting the use of an honest broker, either in principle or because of the personalities of the staffers he chose, Obama himself delved deeply into the major policies of his administration.”

In this way of deciding, the people close to him, particularly White House staff members who have no independent power bases, can become extensions of his own thinking process. If this is true he is vulnerable to thinking through them rather than with them. The danger here is that his thinking may become solipsistic, particularly when facing ambiguity. This danger is compounded by the fact that his staff members, in contrast to his cabinet officials have as their primary task the defense of his political interests. Chuck Hegel or John Kerry can represent the independent perspectives of the groups and interests they lead and manage, namely the military and the State Department. In this way they bring in the wider world into the decision making process. But the White House staff must represent in the end, their best understanding of the president’s own interests.  This hypothesis may explain why in fact he did not consult with Kerry or Hegel before deciding to turn the decision to bomb Syria over to Congress. This may also explain how Obama could change his mind after conferring with his chief of staff alone.  It also gives an account of why some journalists characterized Obama as making policy by “thinking out loud.” Failing to engage the military and State Department as links to the world outside the White House, he remained in the seminar room, where thinking out loud is quite acceptable.

Obama supporters may argue of course that these twists and turns, these false starts may all prove irrelevant if in the end the Russian plan for collecting and turning over Syria’s stockpiles to the UN, succeeds. Syria cannot use chemical weapons and the US has not bombed Syria, avoiding in this way collateral damage and the death of more innocent people. But this argument presumes that the pressing issue facing Obama is chemical weapons, rather than the Syrian crisis writ large. After all conventional weapons have already killed more than 100,000 people, millions of Syrian citizens have been displaced, creating certain trauma for a generation to come, and the war is destabilizing Iraq by reviving the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. The question remains what stance should the U.S. take toward this conflict? How can Obama bring meaning to the ambiguities that underlie these events? 

One hypothesis about decision making in the face of ambiguity is that a decision maker can find a compelling narrative in such a situation by drawing on his feelings, his gut, as well as his thoughts. Feelings are synthesizers, they enable us to value facts and give them color, according to our dispositions, interests and hopes. George W. Bush relied perhaps too much on his feelings, for example, knowing his gut that the War against Saddam Hussein was a war for democracy in the Middle East. In retrospect, this proposition was simplistic, and revealed Bush’s own failures as the gutsy “decider,” (as he once described himself). Obama may face the opposite dilemma. He stays too much in his head plumbing for facts, that however accurate and numerous, can never on their own confer meaning.  This can reinforce his natural cautiousness. But as we saw in the case of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, it can also lead him to act impulsively.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Folk Psychology of Money.

I recently read a blog post about the coming catastrophic collapse of the U.S. economy and the destruction of all our wealth. This genre of writing is familiar, but it author’s errors are nonetheless instructive. While the author may be what Keynes called a “monetary crank,” his errors highlight some of challenges we face in understanding what money actually is. In this post I hypothesize that a folk psychology underlies our theory of money; a psychology based on anxieties about our interdependence, and the conditions of contingency that shape our experience.

The post’s author writes, “You see that 300 percent increase in the money supply we've experienced . . Much of it is sitting in excess reserves at the Fed and with the big banks. These funds haven't made it into the markets and the economy yet. But it's a mathematical certainty that once this dam breaks, and this money passes through the reserves and hits the markets, inflation will surge.” (

The metaphor of the dam breaking suggests that money is a physical force, not unlike a raging river, which operates under its own mathematical laws, much as a gravitational field exerts an inexorable pull on objects in its field.  But nothing could be farther from the truth. It is useful to ask if this misconception is simply a question of ignorance, or is it motivated? Does it serve any purpose?

It is useful to look at the numbers behind the metaphor. Banks are required to hold a minimum amount of reserves in their own checking deposits with the Federal Reserve Bank (“the Fed”). The following chart traces the amount of excess reserves that banks held in these checking deposits with the Fed since 2009. It has grown by the astounding amount of $1.8 trillion. 


As the post we quoted suggests, the bank system has been flooded with money. But how did the money get there and what does it consist of?  The Fed buys treasury bonds, bills and mortgage-backed securities from mutual, hedge and pension funds and deposits the money in sellers’ bank accounts. This means that this money is now available to a seller’s bank as the basis for lending to borrowers, and thus counts as its reserves. (Recall that banks can lend out far more than their reserves because it is unlikely that all the depositors will demand their money at the same time. When this happens, we say that there is a “run on the bank.”)

But where did this money and the subsequent reserves come from? The answer is from nowhere. The Fed created it with keystrokes. Reserves are like points in a football game. The Fed bought the bills and bonds and credited the seller by adding points to both the seller’s account and to the bank’s “score,” or the amount of its recorded reserves. When game officials add points on the scoreboard in a baseball stadium, we never wonder where the points came from. We should not in this case either. Moreover, in the first instance this does not change the money available to the public. Bonds and Treasury bills are ways in which institutions, non-profits, households and mutual funds can earn interest on the money they own, much as individuals do with a savings account. When a pension fund sells bonds to the Fed for money, it is in effect moving its money from a savings account to a checking account. The amount of an individual and institution’s financial assets, at least initially, remains unchanged.

There is a common misconception, held even by some economists, that banks are intermediaries, linking people with money to lend, to people needing money to borrow. This is called the “loanable funds doctrine.” This is not right. Instead, banks create money whenever they make a loan. This is why the process is called credit creation. In this of way of thinking, as modern monetary theory emphasizes, loans create deposits, deposits don’t create loans. (See Modern Money Theory, by Randall Wray, Palgrave, 2012). If a bank gives me a loan it does not give me a barrel full of cash. It simply creates an account on its spreadsheet and marks down the requisite “points” in dollars. Keystrokes again. This also means that when the Fed increases a member bank’s score – the measure of its reserves—the banks do not automatically give out more loans. The money is not sitting there creating pressure. It is denominated in keystrokes. Instead, banks lend only when they can identify credit worthy borrowers. One reason that banks had so much excess reserves in the years after the Great Recession is that they were wary of extending credit. This is also why the Fed’s program of “quantitative easing’ – buying bonds and bills and crediting member banks with reserves, has not caused inflation.

The seeming mystery of how money can come from nothing is resolved by recognizing that economic life is lived forwardly. Businesses have to spend money, before they earn it, and credit, or what is sometimes called “working capital,” makes this possible. This is why sometimes a fast growing company goes out of business. It cannot get enough credit to finance its growing expenses in advance of its hoped for revenues. Credit in this sense is a measure of a bank’s and business owner’s shared conception of the future, which by definition does not yet exist. It is a signal from the future, as the bank and borrowers imagine it together. Money instantiates this signal.
In this sense credit represents a victory of abstraction. Human culture has found a way of representing numerically something that does not exist materially. It is not unlike, the way in which Newton’s theory of gravity accounted for the observed motion of objects, by abstracting from its physical manifestations and positing a force that could only be described mathematically. We can’t “touch” gravity. Instead, it is instantiated only in the numerical relationship between objects. 

So one question is why do people persist in thinking about money as a “thing,” as a force that can break through a dam, or as an object that is passed like a tennis ball from a lender to a borrower. I can think of two hypotheses that draw on psychoanalytic thinking. Both presume that human culture creates “social defenses” against anxiety, which if experienced directly would be distressing and discomfiting.

Consider the extreme case of “gold bugs.” These are people who believe that the only basis for a national currency is gold, and that the Central Banks of all countries should promise to redeem their national currency into gold upon demand. This was in fact the basis for the historic but now defunct international gold standard. The conviction underlying this idea is that states and their representatives cannot be trusted, that left to their own devices they will “print money” in order to confiscate our real resources; our houses, cars, televisions, coal and gas. If political and economic elites are foresworn to redeem paper into gold they will be constrained by the amount of extant gold and the amount that can be mined. Never mind that the amount of gold available as backing is in some degree arbitrary. Never mind as well that if there is insufficient gold, countries will experience deflation because there is too little paper currency to support the desired volume of exchange. Gold bugs discount the salience of these likely problems partly because their larger vision is tinged with paranoia. They worry that a cabal of unseen forces, call them Jewish bankers or Freemasons, controls us, and that only gold will free us.

I suggest that we can generalize from this extreme case. The gold bug has a fantasy of a social relationship, albeit a paranoiac one. Once we understand that money is nothing but the expression of our relatedness, we must recognize the ways in which we are interdependent in world wide circuit of exchange. So one hypothesis is that we want to see money as thing, as a defense against the anxiety we feel when we see how interdependent we really are.  Karl Marx’s conception of “commodity fetishism” is helpful here. He argued that we tend to see an economic exchange as the relationship between money and goods, rather than what it ultimately is, a relationship between people. We treat money as magical, as if it can conjure up objects without considering the underlying social organization that money sets into motion. Thus for example, we buy cheap clothing from Bangladesh imagining that we are exchanging money for clothing.  But in fact we are setting in motion a social process through which poor people work under unsafe and sometime life threatening conditions.  It could very well be anxiety provoking to acknowledge our personal connection to this social fact. That is why of course activists insist that trade be fair as well as free.

Marx’s use of the term, “fetishism” is also suggestive to the psychoanalytic listener, and may provide some additional insight. For example, many men are comfortable in a sexual situation, at least initially, only if they can focus on a body part, for example, a woman’s breast, leg, buttocks or foot. This is very common, as is evident in most commercial pornography.  In the extreme, a male fetishist may need a prop, for example a shoe, in order to become sexually excited. He endows the fetish or shoe with magical properties. One hypothesis is that the this focus on a part, rather than the whole, and on a material object, rather than on the relationship with the woman,  enables the man to exercise control over the conditions that excite him. Absent the fetish his excitement would turn into anxiety. The conception that money is a physical object, that is separate from the complicated relationships it sets into motion, and from the relationships it exposes, shares some of these features. (Note to my skeptical reader. Invoking sexuality does not mean that people's relationship to money is sexualized  Rather, by drawing on sexual experience in its vividness and specificity we gain insight into motivation and its constituents more generally. This is one way to interpret psychoanalysis' privileging of sex as a key to motivation.) 
The term “magical” points to another and perhaps more speculative hypothesis. I came across the following video, which gives a coherent presentation of credit creation, emphasizing for example the creation of credit out of nothing and the system of account settlement and clearing. ( Yet the tone and import of the video suggests conspiracy. It is introduced with dark sounding music, and images of a grim reaper type of figure chained to a rock of “debt” and swinging a mallet to break the chain. The video scrolls through a quote by Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, “Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of somebody. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.” The video’s central message is that there is something nefarious about the fact that credit is created “ex-nihilo,” or to translate the Latin, “out of nothing.”    

The phrase “ex-nihilo” is in fact linked to the idea of credit creation (,  but was originally a theological description of God’s powers.  In Judeo-Christian theology only God can create ex-nihilo. This is why the Old Testament counsels the Israelites to avoid magic and magicians, “No witch shall you let live,” (Exodus, 22: 17).  Moreover, the economist Fredrick Hayek argues that in the early stages of capitalism, “Activities that appear to add to available wealth ‘out of nothing,’ without physical re-creation and by merely rearranging what already exists, stink of sorcery.” As David Hawkes notes this was one basis for the revulsion against usury in Renaissance England; not that it was simply unjust but that it was supernatural. Money “procreated” so to speak, in the form of interest payments added to capital. Yet it was lifeless. As he writes, “Usury was magic perfected by other means.” (The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England, Palgrave, 2010)

Today most of us do not believe in magic. Instead we enjoy magic shows in which stage magicians makes objects appear out of nothing -- ex-nihilo -- but only in fun, though we are often astonished. I want to suggest nonetheless that there is an experiential basis for our anxieties about "ex-nihilo," particularly in a secular age. If we think seriously about our own existence, it must seem that we came into the world, ex-nihilo. Of course we understand how babies are born, but our own existence is so arbitrary. After all, none of us have existed since the beginning of the universe and yet here we are now, suddenly! How can that be?  

The arbitrary can be frightening. It is a portal to chaos. But we should also remember that the other side of arbitrary is “contingency.” Our world is not determined, and this becomes the basis for creative work of all kinds. That is why credit creation can support entrepreneurship, which is, after all, the creative arrangement of resources in new ways.

One speculative hypothesis is that that we project these existential anxieties onto a “folk-theory” about money. At the extreme, some people develop a theory of money in which “hidden forces,” who create credit out of nothing, use this power to enslave us, in other words to eliminate contingency and the capacity for creative work. This fantasy paradoxically provides relief because it suggests that someone, some shadowy network, is actually in control. All is not chaos, and if we are smart enough, we can control the controllers. A larger number of people, less likely to be drawn to conspiratorial thinking, persists in thinking of money as a physical object that operates mechanically, as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable idea that the course of our lives, like our birth, is entirely contingent and unpredictable. The laws of money like the laws of physics provide scaffolding, an “invisible hand.” This may be one reason why economists did not anticipate the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession. This sense of contingency is also the basis for  the criticism that George Soros, the famous investor, has of modern economic theory. His name for it is "reflexivity." The challenge then, is to accept the arbitrary, and then see the creative opportunities in contingency, both in our individual lives and in the social world we create together. We can use credit and money creatively.